November 4, 2021

Andreas Betsche

Save The Ocean: Samudra Takes Us Into a Dystopian Underwater World

November 4, 2021 | Andreas Betsche

Samudra is an Indonesian term for the ocean. It is originally derived from the Sanskrit word समुद्र and literally means the “gathering together of waters” (saṃ- “together” and -udra “water”). Samudra is also the name of the latest game from the Indonesian studio Khayalan Arts. Most recently, they brought out the horror platformer Incubo, which in its foundations was reminiscent of the narrative platformer Limbo and Inside of the successful Playdead studio, but could not reach the level of its role models due to a lack of balancing and technical inadequacy. Now the studio is venturing into the genre again but is changing the setting and even wants to spread an important message. We will clarify whether they succeed with this noble task in the following review.

Samudra, i.e. our oceans and seas, are elementary for the natural balance of our planet. Due to the increasing pollution of the world’s oceans, this harmony became imbalanced and threatens to collapse. We see the effects of this cause in decline in biodiversity and in increasing climate change on earth. It is precisely this global problem that Khayalan Arts would like to draw attention to with Samudra. As an island state, Indonesia, the home of the developers, is particularly affected by the littering of the seas, which is why it seems obvious that the game would like to dedicate itself to this topic.

We take over the fate of a nameless character who falls into the sea waves and wakes up on the seafloor. We don’t know anything about our protagonist, who only wears a kind of striped pyjamas and an anachronistic diving helmet with no connection to the surface. We can breathe underwater somehow. We quickly notice that we are in a 2D platformer and move purposefully from left to right through the underwater landscape,  soon realising that this is an apocalyptic scenario because the sea is full of rubbish, used respirators are floating through the water. There is junk and rotting objects everywhere. What happened here? Why are we here? What is our quest?

Getting on the track of these mysteries is the core fantasy of Samudra; here, the parallels to the great role models become clear. The game wants to tell us a story that it gradually unfolds. We encounter marine life that defies its fate and needs our help on our way through this gloomy environmental dystopia. Through cryptic drawings, we learn more about the events in this world and soon discover, as much as one can tell, that humans naturally caused the climate catastrophe.

Samudra makes every effort to enrich its quite simple gameplay with all sorts of distractions. So we can not only jump from platform to platform but, in many cases, have to solve some very tricky puzzles or complete quick reaction tests in more action-packed sections. The game also has stealth passages, for example, when we hide from mean guard robots in the shadow of objects. Samudra never gets boring because the developers cleverly alternate the gameplay elements. In the end, though, we have seen all this enough in other games, so it is just right that Samudra, with 2-3 hours of playtime, did not get too long.

A big weak point of the predecessor Incubo was the unfair saving point system that put you back to the beginning of a sequence in the event of one of the numerous screen deaths. In Samudra, too, we will die often and expel one or the other curse of frustration. Still, the developers have significantly reduced the level of difficulty and annoying trial-and-error luckily remains the exception. The puzzles deserve special mention here, which are pleasantly tricky but rarely unfair yet often hampering the already-slow pace of the game.

Samudra shines with its audiovisual presentation, which has gained artistic quality, especially compared to its predecessor. Blue and grey tones dominate due to the setting, but the watercolour look goes perfectly with the slightly creepy atmosphere of the game. The overall oppressive melancholy is also reflected in the soundscape of the game. Only the recurring bugs and logic errors blur the overall picture from a technical point of view. We had to restart a scene several times because we got stuck due to animation errors or missing triggers.

As expected, the end of the game, which we don’t want to spoil here, leaves us with more questions than answers. But that doesn’t matter, because Samudra nevertheless elegantly manages to develop an exciting mystery story that draws you into the world of the game and makes you think. This point makes the question arise why the developers have not developed this potential and instead cling to the gameplay mechanics of the narrative platformer almost slavishly. In our opinion, a little more emphasis on exploration and fewer deadly traps would have made for a complete overall picture.

All in all, Samudra remains a recommendable platformer with an important message, knowing how to convey it through good environmental storytelling and visual grandeur. However, one can not ignore the sloppy technical implementation (bugs) and the sometimes too repetitive and unimaginative gameplay framework. However, there is such clear progress compared to its predecessor that we are curious what will await us next from Khayalan Arts. It is also exemplary to note that the developers remain true to the game’s idea of saving the planet: the profits from the game will be donated to environmental protection organisations from Indonesia that want to reduce plastic consumption in Indonesia significantly.

Samudra is available for PC on Steam. This review is based on a free review copy provided by the developers.

Andreas Betsche

Andreas Betsche founded Virtual SEA in early 2016 after researching Cambodian mobile games for his Master’s thesis. He has a background in Southeast Asia studies and has worked and lived in Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Since he has been actively playing games since the early 90s, combing both worlds in Virtual SEA brought together both of his passions.

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